Friday, December 4, 2009
Stabbed In Stanzas Feature Writer: D. Harlan Wilson
Interview conducted by Karen L. Newman
D. Harlan Wilson is a premier writer of bizarro fiction. He earned a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University and teaches at Wright State University-Lake Campus. His current books include Peckinpah: An Ultraviolent Romance, Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria, and Technologized Desire: Selfhood & the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction.
KLN: Explain to our readers the definition of bizarro fiction. Please give examples.
DHW: There are different kinds of bizarro fiction. In general it encompasses offshoots of the speculative genres and frequently involves genre-blending. Two anthologies provide the best samplings: The Bizarro Starter Kit Orange and Blue. Each contains a novella or selection of short fiction from representative authors, who are categorized under a particular type of bizarro. For instance, a group of my stories constitutes the first entry in Orange. They’re classified as irrealism, a style that, as I always describe it, combines a dreamlike aesthetic with an absurdist sentiment. Other classifications include off-the-wall names (e.g. subterficial fiction, tweeker lit, cranio-rectal subterfuge, avant punk, brutality chronic) alongside more familiar subtitles (e.g. satire, minimalism, magic realism, surrealism, absurdity). In general, however, bizarro literature subverts conventional narrative formulas to extreme and estranging degrees—that’s the common thread, in my view.
KLN: You received an M.A. in science fiction studies from the University of Liverpool. Why did you choose to write bizarro fiction over science fiction? How is the genre of bizarro more relevant to you than other genres?
DHW: I actually didn’t choose to write bizarro, and personally I don’t think of myself as a bizarro author, even though I’m sometimes referred to as a bizarro figurehead. Like many “movements,” if we can call it that, bizarro was coined by a group or authors and small presses for marketing purposes. Same as the surrealists. Same as the beatniks.
I consider myself more of a science fiction writer than a bizarro writer, but I recognize that my stories and books fall well outside of the purview of genre sf, which beckons the “serious” and “realistic” extrapolation of scientific principles. My writing functions as bizarro because of the degree to which I violate, flout and/or ignore narrative conventions and pervert the “serious” and “realistic” process of extrapolation. In this way, bizarro is an apt category.
KLN: You’ve worked at other jobs, such as a salesman, model, actor, casino dealer, security guard, garbage man, tax collector, sommelier, town crier, and flâneur. How have these experiences molded your writing? By the way, what does a flâneur do? Where were you a town crier? I don’t know of such a job here in America.
DHW: My memory escapes me to some degree . . . I was a town crier, I recall, as a teenager, when I was living in the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Scotland where my father was transferred to become a land surveyor. You may recall that Orkney was where Victor Frankenstein retreated to create the monster’s wife. Anyway, we lived in a small village and my job was essentially to sit behind a microphone in this makeshift radio station and broadcast tornado watches and warnings—common occurrences in Orkney. The flâneur gig was connected to modeling. Historically a flâneur was a kind of European dandy and very much an urban figure. Baudelaire is the prototype. Flâneurs were lower class males who dressed up in fancy clothes and pranced around the streets of cities trying to pass themselves off as bourgeois while at the same time critically “experiencing” city life. I was hired by a company that wanted to conduct a sociological experiment. They paid me to live on the streets of Budapest for two months as a flâneur. No idea what they were looking for or testing, but I was under constant surveillance. At first it was photographers who shot me from clandestine windows and alleyways; by the last week or so, though, these same photographers, and many cameramen, were treating me like a celebrity, following me around the city like the paparazzi. It was all very weird and confusing, but it was more or less safe, and it paid for one year of my graduate studies. My employment as a garbage man, sommelier and tax collector were equally interesting and stupid, like just about every job I’ve had—all of which, to answer your question, have molded my writing to varying degrees. In the end, reality is always better than fiction.
KLN: Modeling and acting are a lot of people’s dream jobs, so why did you become a professor and writer? What are some of your acting and modeling credits?
DHW: Not much glory in my modeling/acting past, I’m afraid, but it made me some extra money when I was in graduate school. I did a few commercials, some runway work, photo shoots for local magazines, etc. I never really pursued it as a career. It was simply a means to an end.
KLN: Did your acting experience help open the door to your writing screenplays? What are you most interested in filming?
DHW: Acting didn’t open any doors for screenwriting in my case. I started writing screenplays in the mid-1990s while I was doing my M.A. in English at UMass-Boston. The first one I wrote was an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s obscure novel A Short, Sharp Shock. I didn’t have a background in screenwriting, and I still don’t—I learned to write them by reading and studying other screenplays. I can’t remember why I took up screenwriting. But I’ve always loved movies.
Nothing ever came of A Short, Sharp Shock. Since then I’ve never written any feature-length works, although I began a treatment of Alfred Bester’s science fiction novel The Stars My Destination. I mainly write screenplays for short, experimental films. Right now that’s all I’d like to do. Everybody’s writing a screenplay, after all. Most of them are shelved or trashed and it’s an exercise in futility; you need to have connections, to make the Hollywood scene, to network ad infinitum, wheel-and-deal, etc. I’m not interested in any of that.
Only one of my short screenplays has been made into a film, “The Cocktail Party,” based on a story of the same name in my first book, The Kafka Effekt, and directed by Brandon Duncan. It’s an irreal black-and-white film rotoscoped in the vein of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and it won a lot of awards at film festivals in 2007, including an Official Selection nod at Comic-Con. I’m very proud of this film. Brandon is a talented filmmaker and visual artist; he has also illustrated several of my book covers. We’re going to collaborate on another short film soon, “Beebody,” based on the story “Classroom Dynamics” in my book Pseudo-City.
KLN: You’ve worked on comics and illustrations. Do you have any special artistic training? Do you prefer to draw people or objects?
DHW: I don’t have any artistic training, and I’ve never done illustrations for comics, only written them. A series of my abstract drawings were used in Dutch author Yorgos Dalman’s first book, De vrouw in de kamer (trans. The Woman in the Room), in 2004. Yorgos is my Dutch translator. Other than that, none of my illustrations have been formally published and I do it for fun. Illustrating, though, was a formative experience for my writing. As I kid I used to spend hours drawing things, mainly robots and animal cartoons. It was a good imaginative outlet that I now execute with writing.
KLN: Your nonfiction credentials are impressive. What are your favorite topics and why?
DHW: Broadly speaking, I’m trained in the fields of twentieth century American literature, postmodernism, science fiction, film studies, and literary theory. Most of the criticism I have published has engaged all of these fields simultaneously. More specifically, I am interested in how electronic media technologies pathologize and redefine the human condition. I’ve always been interested in media technologies, critically and creatively, since I was a kid playing Atari and fiddling with Commodore 64 programs.
KLN: What do you look for in submissions to your magazine, The Dream People? Besides bizarro, what else would you be interested in editing?
DHW: The subtitle of The Dream People is “A Journal of Irreal Texts,” so we are primarily interested in irrealism. But finding enough good irrealism to populate an entire issue is difficult to do. We have to broaden our scope, publishing pieces that fall more squarely into the speculative genres. Above all, we want flash fiction—anywhere from five to 1,000 words, preferably under 500 words. This is more conducive to an online audience. We also feature at least two artists in each issue and accept submissions of novel excerpts, book reviews, comics, essays, creative nonfiction, microcriticism, and even short videos.
KLN: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I appreciate your time. Is there anything additional you’d like to share with our readers?
DHW: I will simply encourage readers to visit my website and check out my latest releases at www.dharlanwilson.com.
--Karen L. Newman
(The Black Glove thanks D. Harlan Wilson for his time and efforts)
(Editor's Note: Psst...Wilson has a hell of a great web site. Take a gander by clicking the hyperlink above. You won't regret it.)